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As we look for guests for each show, we seek authoritative voices who not only have the expertise to speak about delicate subjects but a personal investment in that subject as well. In this week’s show, “The Long Shadow of Torture” (available via podcast on June 11), we found that voice — Darius Rejali, a professor of Political Science at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.
He’s written several books on the topic of violence and torture, including Torture and Modernity: Self, Society and State in Modern Iran and, most recently, Torture and Democracy. In the preface to the latter, Rejali writes about his personal stake on this subject:
Perhaps as a child, I was more disposed to thinking differently about violence than others. My relation to violence was more intimate. On my Iranian side, royal autocrats in my family had no difficulty ordering torture or genocide when it served their interests. Stories of their deeds are, to say the least, unforgettable. On my American side, we remember General Sherman’s march through Georgia. In September 1864, as cannons shelled Atlanta, my ancestor, Harriet Yarbrough, dug a hole in a bank and hid there with her two children. Afterward, she was one of 446 families who stayed behind; she had opposed the war passionately from the outset, but when Union soldiers destroyed the Yarbrough home for firewood, that was the last straw. Undaunted by the situation in which she found herself, she went to find Sherman and unleashed all her fury at him. It did no good, and the site of her home is now part of Olympic Park. She filed for reimbursement from the War Department, and pursued the claim until 1891. She never forgot.
Being an Iranian aristocrat — American Southerner, a Shiite Muslim — Calvinist with a keen sense of history, presents unique intellectual and moral challenges. If you had told me early in childhood that I would write a book on Iranian torture — as I did — I would not have believed you. And I am just as surprised, I think, that this new book is also on torture.
But it seems my family’s tales of the dark side of human life have put me in a good position to understand where we find ourselves today. Exactly a hundred years ago, my Iranian great-grandfather fought to defend his autocratic way of life. He did not hesitate to turn cannons on crowds or torture people he considered terrorists and anarchists. His opponents said, there you see, his way of life is a sham, and these people disguise barbaric force behind high-minded talk of honorable values. And who was to say they were wrong? For if honorable men cannot fight fairly and win, who on earth are they, and what do they represent? In the end no one, except a handful of sycophants, mourned the passing of his way of life.
A hundred years later, believers in democracy seem to be ready to make the same mistake as my autocratic ancestor, and I am here to urge them not to. I hope I have written a story that makes us take a second look at ourselves as we enter a new century primed to treat our enemies inhumanely.